Running and I, we have a checkered past.
As a kid I abhorred it –to the point where it generated such anxiety when I was in school that I actually cried once struggling to jog a mile in 12 minutes. It’s not like I suffered from any physical limitation; I was just really lazy.
But back in 1999, while interning at Outside magazine in Santa Fe, I started running with my co-intern and pal, Jane. She was fast and long legged, but for me she patiently cooled her normal pace as we traveled the dirt roads and arroyos around town. I liked it. About a year later after we’d become very close, she died, and I would use runs as a way to remember her and have little conversations with her, crying again, but for a different reason.
Since I’ve been in SF, I’ve been bound by sidewalks and stoplights, and aside from a few months training for a marathon, I’ve largely run alone. That’s usually fine, but a little camaraderie and elbow talk can go a long way to pass the miles. So I checked out some local running clubs.
The Golden Gate Running Club has a social chairperson. Members meet for brunch after Sunday runs, which start at a hangover-friendly 10 a.m. Its website boasts “we run hard and we play hard,”and its calendar includes monthly happy-hour meet-ups that have nothing to do with running. No, it isn’t a singles’ running club. But it isn’t too far removed from a singles’ running club, either.
I didn’t really care either way. I just wanted to find some new routes, so I joined the crew on a remarkably sunny and pleasant Sunday morning. As I jogged up to that week’s meeting place, the Warming Hut on Crissy Field, I found close to 25 participants who broke off into three groups. One headed on a leisurely run along the water to Aquatic Park and back. Another planned to head west to the Cliff House (about 12 miles), and the third, which I joined, headed for what’s called the “planks run,” a 6ish-mile loop.
This was in the early stages of my story research. In other words, I was in pretty crappy shape. So I lucked out by linking up with a guy who’d run a 22K race the day before and was really just approaching this as a low-speed leg stretch.
The planks route gets its name from the planked walkways along the southwestern edge of the Presidio. We ran past features that I had somehow never seen in my many trips through the park –including Mountain Lake Park, a little 14-acre gem that offers fitness stations for stretching and sit-ups, among other activities.
As we wound our way back to the waterfront, I felt pooped but psyched to be expanding my running social circle.
In 1971, the Amateur Athletic Union, which sanctioned most races around San Francisco, did not allow women to enter. So some locals founded the Pamakid Runners Club (an amalgam of “pa, ma, and kids”) and started hosting gender- and age-inclusive races of their own. The organization is still around, but in 2002, a subgroup of Pamakid, called K-Stars, started meeting at Crepes On Cole in Cole Valley at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings to do training runs.
There were just eight K-Stars runners when I met up with them on a recent overcast Saturday, but I’m told the crew is often much larger. I’m sure Sam, who owns the crêperie and lets K-Star members stash their bags in the back room during the run, appreciates the larger numbers, since the group comes back there for breakfast. On that particular day, most runners did an 11-mile loop through Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach, Lands End, and back to Cole Valley via Arguello. I joined a smaller group doing a 6-mile out and back to Speedway Meadows in the park.
K-Stars consists of veteran (don’t read that as “old”necessarily, but they’re definitely not college kids) runners who’ve been devotees of the club for many years. They have a long history of training together for marathons. It’s a tight crew, but they’re terribly nice and inclusive of newbies.
The K-Stars also offer a track workout ($4 drop-in) at Kezar Stadium on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. I tried it out, even though I hadn’t done any speed training since my marathon days. The K-Stars are fast. Everyone dusted me, including a 70-something-year-old marathoner. When they say their workouts are noncompetitive, though, they mean it. They all cheered me on as I struggled to sprint, and despite nearly puking up my lunch after each interval, I actually want to go back.
I quickly learned that one could run nearly every day of the week with a different club. This is due largely to the preponderance of “fun run” groups sponsored by retail stores. The Adidas Store (865 Market Street) club meets on Monday; Fleet Feet (2076 Chestnut Street) meets on Tuesday; and Niketown (278 Post Street) hosts one on Wednesday. Sports Basement, where I joined, hosts one at its Bryant Street store on Wednesday and another at its Presidio location on Tuesday.
There are two upsides to store clubs, which generally meet during the afternoon and offer shorter (3–4 miles) and longer (7–9 mile) routes. They’re free, and they’re a good source of swag. These vendors want captive, committed buyers and running clubs provide just that. So in addition to refreshments at the end of each week’s run, you might get a free tube of sunblock or socks, or you might draw a winning ticket and receive a brand new pair of kicks.
My first foray into store clubland was on a hot afternoon at the Bryant Street Sports Basement. The group was friendly and chatty, and by the end of the short 3.5 mile loop to AT&T Park and back, I’d managed to network with a photographer and offered to help a woman who’s new to town land a job. Back at the store, we snacked on carrots and hummus, but I’d hit up the club on an off night: no swag.
Everyone at the Bryant Street club was super nice, but the store is pretty close to my house and the terrain is a bit too urban for my liking, so I next trekked out to the Presidio Sports Basement on a foggy Tuesday afternoon.
The group’s serpentine route went past Lucasfilm and then upward to the impossibly long Lyon Street staircase. It was obvious that I was holding a pace I couldn’t sustain, but I tried anyway because I wanted to stick with the crew ahead of me rather than join the one behind me, which was doing a relatively flat 4-miler. I gasped up the stairs and hoofed it past Lovers’ Lane and down toward the Julius Kahn Playground at the southern edge of the Presidio, where I ended up running with a guy named Calvin. Turns out, he and his buddy (one of the speedier runners we were slowly losing) were also testing out different running groups.
As we moved past Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire, a Sports Basement employee who’d left the store late caught up to us. I realized I didn’t need to stress about my speed because the staffer, Michael, was sweeping the course. He hung with us as we weaved past Rob Hill Campground and then dropped steeply down 160 or so stairs almost to Marshall’s Beach on the Coastal Trail. We then snaked up more stairs, past an old military battery and under the Golden Gate Bridge to Fort Point – which, in the quickly fading light, looked just as it did in Kim Novak’s jumping scene in Vertigo. I mustered a second wind during the final mile as the moon emerged and bats swooped over our heads, but I was pretty well spent by the end.
By the end of my investigative mission, I logged 25 miles, met just as many interesting people, and learned lots of new routes. I’m registered to run a half-marathon down in Monterey this fall, so to keep things interesting I’ll be heading back to the clubs, training and talking and trying to keep a strong pace.
With the exception of the fee-based Golden Gate Running Club (where the first three runs are free, then it's $40 a year) all of the clubs I joined are free.
Golden Gate and K-Stars seem best for runners who are looking for race-training support or just enjoy company on their long weekend runs. These groups will communicate any changes in schedule via email, so be sure to get on any lists they offer to stay on top of the logistics.
The store groups usually attract a rotating cast and are useful for fitting shorter workouts into busy weekday schedules. If you’re looking into a retail-based club, check online for meeting times and places, but it’s also worth it to call ahead and make sure they’re meeting on the day you want to run.
I barely scratched the surface of San Francisco running clubs, which include such niche groups as the LBGT community’s FrontRunners club and the running-and-drinking Hash House Harriers.
Some groups post their scheduled routes online using Google’s Gmaps pedometer. Checking this out beforehand can help you catch up with whatever crew you join if you’re late for departure.